The Ancient Art of Mead: Making Spiced Cyser
I was first introduced to the magical ways of mead when Tobias Schock, a good friend and artisan of fermented delights, invited me to a brewing lesson. He showed me how to combine plums he had picked that very morning with raw local honey and yeast for what would slowly develop into a delicious alcoholic beverage. I was enchanted! Within weeks, happily fermenting concoctions were bubbling away in my kitchen: Peach and Ginger Mead made with luscious peaches purchased from a small local farm and raw local wildflower honey, Cyser from freshly pressed apple cider and raw local Maple blossom honey. Over the winter when fresh fruit was unavailable locally, I experimented with dried Bilberries, Elder flowers, Meadowsweet, and Vanilla beans.
It has now been several years since my first experiments in mead making, and I’ve since fermented many more batches of alcoholic delights with a variety of fresh and dried herbs including Nettle, Hibiscus flowers, Mugwort, Lemon Verbena, Yarrow, Roses, Sweet Woodruff, Lemon Balm, Chamomile, Spruce tips, Pineapple Sage, and I even made a mead infused with eleven different types of flowers. Mead does take patience; it often requires at least a full year to age properly and it only becomes better with time. However, this only makes sharing a bottle of perfectly aged homemade mead with friends even more extraordinary.
Affectionately called “Nectar of the Gods” or “Honey Wine”, brewing mead is not a new practice. There is archaeological evidence of mead being produced as early as 7000 BC and written records date from 1700 BC! Although it was called by different names, fermented honey beverages were enjoyed worldwide by native cultures throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, North, and the Americas.
Not only is mead delicious and simple to create, it is also fairly inexpensive. A 5 gallon batch will usually cost $40-60 utilizing raw honey and organic fruit all purchased through local farms and beekeepers. That’s around $2 or less per bottle! If you keep bees, then you can make a batch of mead for little more than the cost of the yeast.
Below is a recipe for mead made from apple cider and honey, it was based on Ken Shramm’s recipe for “Fall’s Bounty Cyser” which is available in his book, “The Compleat Meadmaker”. Before beginning, I recommend getting acquainted with your local homebrew store. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve popped into our local shop, Falling Sky Fermentation Supply Shop, for reassurance or to ask questions when a fermentation doesn’t go quite as expected. I also suggest the book “The Compleat Meadmaker” by Ken Shramm, and of course, there is much information available online including some wonderfully helpful homebrewing forums.
Spiced Apple Cyser
Cyser is the name given to mead made from cider and honey. The addition of spices makes this the perfect warming and comforting beverage to sip during the autumn and winter months. If you create this mead now, it will be perfectly aged to enjoy during next year’s holiday season! It can even be gently warmed to temperatures below 170 degrees and served with a Cinnamon stick or a couple of Cloves or Cardamom pods.
- 8 lbs raw local honey (I used raw Maple flower honey from a local beekeeper)
- 4 gallons freshly pressed apple cider (best when pressed from a variety of apples)
- 1 package yeast (there are a variety of liquid and dry yeasts available, make sure to use one that can withstand the high alcohol content of mead)
- 1 lb organic brown sugar
- ½ lb organic dates, chopped
- 2 tsp yeast energizer
- 1 tsp yeast nutrient
- Water to 5 gallons (if needed)
- Organic spices (optional): 1 Cinnamon stick, 1 tsp whole Allspice, 1 tsp whole Cardamom pods, 3 whole Cloves, 5 whole Black Peppercorns, 1 whole Nutmeg. This will make a heavily spiced mead which will taste similar to mulled cider. You can change the blend or omit the spices altogether.
- Equipment: Thermometer, plastic food-grade bucket, 5 or 6 gallon glass carboy, fermentation lock and rubber stopper, siphon house and racking cane, and sanitizer.
1. First, sanitize everything that will come in contact with your mead. You can use Star San, One Step Cleanser, or another sanitizer available from a homebrew shop.
2. Mix the cider, honey, brown sugar, and dates in a food-grade bucket, making sure to blend them thoroughly. Add water if needed to reach a total volume of 5 gallons. Some recipes call for boiling the honey, but this causes the honey to lose its natural antimicrobial and antibacterial properties as well as some of the delicious flavor and aromatics. I prefer to leave the honey raw, but if you are concerned about sanitation, then heat the cider and honey mixture to a temperature of 150 degrees and hold it there for 10 minutes.
3. Add yeast energizer, yeast nutrient, and yeast to the honey and cider blend according to the directions on the packages. Mix vigorously to add oxygen and aerate the must. Yeast needs plenty of oxygen in order to reproduce and create a healthy fermentation.
5. For the primary fermentation, you can use the food-grade plastic bucket with a tight-fitting lid or a glass carboy. With either vessel, you will need to attach an airlock and rubber stopper. Check your yeast strain to see what temperatures are preferred, but most mead is best fermented in an area that is 60 to 75 degrees. Now the magic will begin! Within 24-48 hours you should see activity coming from your airlock.
6. The bubbles will be vigorous in the beginning, decreasing in activity over the next couple of weeks. Once they have subsided to one bubble every 60 seconds or longer and you notice that the yeast has settled into a layer at the bottom of the bucket, it is time to transfer your mead. It is useful to taste the beverage and take a hydrometer reading at this point to ensure that the fermentation is complete. The mead should no longer taste sweet and the final gravity should be between 0.990 – 1.015.
7. Gravity is needed for this next step, so place the fermenting bucket/carboy on a chair or stool and allow the yeast to settle to the bottom again (I usually let it sit overnight). Using a siphon and racking cane, rack the liquid off of the yeast into a glass carboy with an airlock and rubber stopper. Store the filled carboy in a cool area such as a basement, which is the ideal place if you have one.
8. You can add spices anytime during the fermentation process, but I like to wait until the mead has mellowed a bit so that I can taste the spices in the mead. First, place the spices in a muslin bag and boil in a little water to sanitize. Next, allow the spice filled bag and remaining liquid to cool completely. Add the spiced liquid and suspend the bag of herbs in the mead. Spices can easily overwhelm other flavors in the mead, so taste your mead frequently after adding them. You can also add oak chips during the fermentation to infuse notes of vanilla, oak, and to help soften the mead’s overall flavor. Treat oak chips first by boiling in water and then allow them to sit for a few hours before adding.
9. Once the signs of fermentation have subsided and the mead has cleared and is no longer cloudy, it is ready to bottle! You may have to transfer the mead a couple of times before this happens to eliminate sediment at the bottom. Use clean and sanitized wine or beer bottles and new corks or caps (bottles may be reused, but do not reuse closures). 5 gallons of mead will fill approximately twenty-five 750ml wine bottles or fifty-three 12oz beer bottles.
Don’t worry if your mead tastes hot and alcoholic, those harsh flavors will subside with aging. Most important, remember to always sanitize anything that ever comes in contact with your mead to preserve and enjoy this special beverage.